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Lovesick

The Council of Love by Oskar Panizza directed by Richard Pena at the loeb tonight and tomorrow 8 p.m.

By Anemona Hartocollis

FOR MOST PEOPLE in our times the really perplexing questions of sin and redemption turn up in a secular context. Religion tends to be a perfunctory kind of activity, if you bother with it at all, or an eclectic sort of scholarly pursuit. Everyone has mystical moments, or gets tangled up in emotions, fazed by situations that are hard to sort out in a rational way. But 20th-century life demands a pretty pragmatic and scientific frame of mind.

Christian love, Eastern serenity, contemplation--they're all right, but too often you have to squeeze them into your spare time, maybe as an after thought. Perhaps religion affords an out when you're down and confused, but it hardly rates as opium for the masses anymore, if it ever did.

The Council of Love is a religious farce. But the Christian satire merely provides a vehicle for Oskar Panizza to raise questions about the moralities of love and sex. Shades of evil like Lucifer, Satan or the Leviathan don't figure in this play, the concept takes on the simple form of the devil. God might as well go by the name of The Father, it's plenty descriptive and doesn't wrench a person outside the bounds of ordinary human experience. Mary, the Eternal Woman, is indeed typical, for she cannot deal straightforwardly with sexuality, and her virginity has nothing to do with her reservations and furtive denial of desire. Christ is rarely lucid. Perhaps the burden of sin makes him appear half-witted a lot of the time, and his body is wracked by hoarse coughing and as wasted as a consumptive's. He is also referred to as The Man.

Panizza has populated his supernatural world with a pretty tawdry lot, but you couldn't call this a presumptuous thing to do. His Biblical figures are modeled after the real world, so that his statements about the nature of Evil will intersect with our own experience. What we can come closest to understanding is human motivation. Faced with something more, different or better, we're still going to reduce it to our own common denominator.

Panizza's devil seems to be the only one who grasps this fact clearly, and it informs his dissatisfaction and frustration with the scheme of being and not being. He sees the heavenly world the way the playwright does--as a fraud. He's an intellectual type, consigned for his shrewdness to menial tasks and thwarted revolutions. He's sort of sympathetic in his weakness; surely he would be happier with his head in the clouds. Instead, he's worse off than we are, with his feet firmly planted under the ground. It might be going a bit too far to call him a prole, but he works hard, yet he's been "forgotten and kicked downstairs. No family background? Then don't ask for any favors down here, young man."

There are hints that the devil's domain isn't so unpleasant, it smells of earth and spice, while there's a noticeable stench in heaven. Nonetheless, he wistfully longs for material comforts or transcendent bliss--some new clothes would be nice, he hasn't changed since the Spanish Inquisition. The onset of Nausea puts an end to such thoughts, though, and Sartre hasn't even come along yet (Panizza wrote in 1873). Back to work.

A heavenly Council of Love has met to assign him the feat of punishing mankind for its lust. God is too senile to start over, and the redemption of human soul is his only reason for existence, so fits of wrath like flood and fire are out this time. The devil ponders the problem and answers it with syphilis in the guise of an utterly naive and entrancing woman. The Virgin Mary is belatedly overcome with pity for humanity and ignores her promise to reward this hellish effort despite the demon's defence that his victims will still be capable of redemption. Angry, he rejoins that, like him, they'll also still be capable of free thought.

Sexuality, even if it no longer fills us with religious guilt, will always preoccupy us. Bodily pleasure and desire is an integral part of love, and it is perturbing to see it attacked and love sullied. In Christian terms, love means redemptions, and this is the Catch 22 for the holy Council scandalized by debauchery in the 15th-century Papal Court. Panizza latched onto an intriguing bit of historical trivia for his bawdy mystery play on evil; the first outbreak of syphilis recorded in history occured in the spring of 1945.

THE PLAY IS UNCONVENTIONAL, and an unusual undertaking for the Loeb mainstage. Panizza's ideas have been undeservedly shunned by directors, but the script has technical faults which director Richard Pena failed to recognize. Sometimes the metaphor of syphilis becomes obsessive, which makes the devil's session before God too long, redundant and plain boring. As the devil himself observes, "You can take a lot of crap as long as you can communicate." His soliloquy is laced with pseudo-scientific clap-trap that is arresting only because Kenneth Demsky's tremulous head, clubfooted hitch and fine, brooding elocution fascinate.

The movement of the sea of minor characters is much more skillful than their acting. The cherub's voice cracks and the angels' shrieks are irritatingly devoid of feeling, but they scamper and perch insolently and daringly on the tiered balcony of their Kingdom. The court scenes are a frenzied brew of comic motion, alternating between medieval Italian dance, bouts of wrestling and the Comedian Dell'Arte's pantomime. Among all the dancers the devil's mute partner, Salme (Charlotte Spanos), stands out. Her sinuous form oozes gratuitous corruption. Pulcinello's (Kevin Grumbach) mime effortlessly steals the show for awhile. Even the courtesans playing cat's cradle and pat-a-cake provide an instant's interest for your roving eye.

Up above, the snowy-headed figure of God (Steve Greechie) is imposing in its decrepitude, but his clownish son (Mark McLaughlin) slips from phony eloquence into spent lethargy more convincingly. Sarah McClusky plays a Virgin Mary who seems to have nothing better to do than buff her nails while listening with annoyance to stories that stop short of raciness with the double entendre that "love grows stronger in proportion as hope diminishes." Prudish as she is, she can still bring off a line about "making it worth your while" with the right swagger.

Everyone in Council of Love shows a lot of skin, but excess is rarely titillating. The gold costumes of the bare-assed angels, their short aprons secured by thongs, don't need to be so banal. The Pope's Children, on the other hand, are artfully decked out in the bizarre and gaudy clothes of medieval Italy, and Alexander VI's cap is shoved raffishly and appropriately over his eyes.

It's unfortunate that this production draws you in for the sights and stumbles over the ideas. Oskar Panizza's view of the world turned him into a paranoiac who sought safety and death in an Austrian asylum. He didn't notice when World War II broke out, but he knew the essential facts of it, anyway.

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